Jane Fonda leads an all-star cast in this piece of formulaic fluff
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Book Club: The Next Chapter ★★
(M) 108 minutes
Right now there are two movies in Australian cinemas starring the 85-year-old Jane Fonda: 80 for Brady, released a fortnight ago, and now Book Club: The Next Chapter. If that strikes you as unusual, you may need reminding that Mother’s Day is just around the corner.
For the women of Book Club: The Next Chapter, no expense is too much.Credit: Riccardo Ghilardi/Focus Features via AP
Not that your mother or mine is guaranteed to enjoy these movies: statistically, there’s every chance they’ll prefer blasting off into space with the Guardians of the Galaxy, or watching Keanu Reeves slaughter the rest of the cast of John Wick: Chapter 4. But that doesn’t make Book Club: The Next Chapter any less of a product shaped for the occasion, enabling you to pop a couple of tickets in the gift hamper along with the scented candles and bath salts.
While the packaging here is glossier than in 80 for Brady, the basic formula is identical. Once again, we get a quartet of unlikely besties played by long-familiar stars (who, in Fonda’s case especially, appear to have barely aged in decades). Together, they embark on a road trip during which they consume a significant amount of alcohol, attract welcome male attention, prove that it’s never too late to learn something new, and, most vitally, celebrate their friendship.
Where the football-mad heroines of 80 for Brady only got as far as Houston, here the itinerary is more ambitious, starting out in Los Angeles before taking in Rome, Venice and Tuscany. The occasion is a “bachelorette” holiday for Fonda’s character Vivian, who after a lifetime of playing the field has agreed to settle down with her smooth yet patient boyfriend Arthur (Don Johnson).
As in many varieties of modern Hollywood cinema, a central part of the fantasy is that money is never an issue: Vivian has earned hers in the hotel business, meaning that she and her posse can count on the best treatment wherever they go. The other members of this fortunate club include Carol (Mary Steenburgen), a presumably retired chef, and Sharon (Candice Bergen), a federal judge who lays down the law to her friends when not dispensing quips out of Sex and the City.
Truthfully, I was never clear on how Diane Keaton’s character, conveniently named “Diane”, might have earned her a living in the past. In the present, she’s employed as the film’s narrator, ruminating on chance and fate in terms borrowed from Paulo Coelho’s New Age perennial The Alchemist (in the original 2018 Book Club literary content was slightly more central, with the same group meeting regularly to talk Fifty Shades of Grey).
Pastel-coloured and soft-focused to the max, Book Club: The Next Chapter is quite an extreme experience; a chance to enjoy some hardcore pampering by proxy. There are pretty landscapes and statues, sumptuous meals, shots of slim young gondoliers from behind, and a visit to a bridal couturier where each lead gets to try on the dresses (Fonda’s character may be the one getting married, but why should she have all the fun?).
While returning director Bill Holderman and his co-writer Erin Simms can’t dispense with plot altogether, they’re bent on keeping tension to a minimum. If the characters have their luggage stolen, it’s not too much torture to have to buy new outfits – and while they may occasionally blurt out home truths to each other, nobody holds a grudge.
Actual books are barely on the radar of this book club in the sequel.Credit: Universal
Even the spectre of death is little more than a spur to seize the moment. It’s a charmed life they lead, these ladies: that admittedly could also be said of the Guardians and John Wick, but those characters do at least have to fight visible battles from time to time.
It could be, of course, that my reluctance to buy into this particular brand of escapism stems from the fact I don’t fit into the target demographic. But then neither do Holderman and Simms, who are both in their 40s, and are pictured in one of a series of pen-and-ink drawings that accompany the closing credits dreaming up the scenario over glasses of red wine.
That in itself is charming, and made me wish that I had enjoyed the preceding hundred minutes more. But there are many reasons, even beyond age and gender, why I can’t see myself joining this particular club.
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